We’ve all done it at one time or another: whipped out our smartphone to snap a picture of a sunset that is too beautiful to forget, or surreptitiously photographed a particularly impressive dish at a restaurant.

It's obvious that we document our lives to keep our memories from fading, but with such widespread use of camera phones and new devices like the Narrative Clip – a mini camera that automatically takes a picture every 30 seconds – how much is too much? Are we taking too many pictures?

If you look at recent research by Linda Henkel, a psychology professor at Fairfield University, you might think the answer is yes. Her research has suggested that taking photos can actually impair your ability to recall details of the event later, despite – and likely because of – the effort spent taking excessive photographs.

In her study from 2014, students were led on a museum tour and asked to take photos of certain works of art – and only observe others. When they were tested the next day, they were less able to remember details of objects that they had photographed. This is what Henkel calls a “photo-taking impairment effect”.

“What I think is going on is that we treat the camera as a sort of external memory device,” Henkel says. “We have this expectation that the camera is going to remember things for us, so we don’t have to continue processing that object and we don’t engage in the types of things that would help us remember it.” Though she adds that even if by taking photos we impair our memory in the short-term, having those photos in the first place will help trigger us to remember things later down the line.

Divided attention is absolutely an enemy of memory

Interestingly, the impairment effect was diminished when students were asked to zoom in on a particular aspect of an object, suggesting that the extra effort and focus required to do so aids memory processes or that we our more likely to externalise our memory when the camera captures a wider scene.

“It makes sense because research consistently shows that divided attention is absolutely an enemy of memory,” says Henkel.

Of course, we’ve felt the need to take photos for decades, when almost every household in Western Europe and America owned a camera.

But the shift from film to digital has also changed why we take photos and how we use them.

Research has confirmed what many of us suspect – that the primary role of photography has shifted from commemorating special events and remembering family life, to a way of communicating to our peers, forming our own identity, and bolstering social bonds. While older adults adopting digital cameras tend to use them as memory tools, younger generations tend to use the photos taken on them as a means of communication.

Logging our lives

“Many times people are taking photos – not to serve as a later memory cue, but rather to say this is how I’m feeling right here, right now,” says Henkel. “Look at Snapchat for example, users are taking those photos to communicate, rather than to remember.”

Our ability to document hit a new high with the advent of Microsoft’s SenseCam, an automatic wearable camera with a wide-angle lens, and as more people participate in “life logging”. Conceived as a type of “black box” recorder for humans and first released in 2003, the SenseCam can passively take pictures when it senses a person is in front of the camera or when there’s a significant change in light. It can also be set to automatically snap a photo every 30 seconds.

Evangelos Niforatos, a researcher at Università della Svizzera Italiana, studies how new technology can affect our ability to make memories. He’s also been actively life-logging for the last three years. Though research has shown life-logging using passive cameras can be significantly beneficial for people who suffer from severe memory impairments and review their autobiographical photos periodically, Niforatos says that the biggest hurdle with life-logging for regular users is figuring out how to use all that data.

“When it comes to an important experience to document, life-logging gadgets are definitely useful. But for everyday life, it’s not quite there,” he says. “But we’re optimistic that we’ll be able to get it closer to your actual memory – like a prosthetic memory that will give you the right memory cues to trigger what you want to remember.”

We may have changed the way we remember the experiences we record

Niforatos and his colleagues are designing a study that will link heart rate monitors from activity trackers like the Fitbit to automatic cameras, to see if changes in heart rate could indicate the best times to start snapping photos.

Digital cameras may not only have changed the way we take pictures. We may have even changed the way we remember the experiences we record, thanks to social media.

“We know memories are reconstructive. It’s certainly possible that we are reconstructing our memories to make them more in line with photos that we are taking, or with photos that others take and show to us,” says Kimberley Wade, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Warwick who studies false memories. “If someone shows you a photo that you didn’t take, it may show part of an event that you were at, but you don’t remember. And maybe that does become your memory. You may no longer know if the photo is something that you actually saw at the event.”

And remembering things from an outside point of view may have its drawbacks. Research has shown that when you remember an experience from a third-person perspective, you have less emotional connections to the memory.

But Niforitos for one argues that rather than distorting your memories, looking at photos that other people took at a shared event could ultimately enhance your memory of it.

“It depends on how you define experience. You could certainly argue that those shared experiences are your memories too,” he says. “It’s possible to build a system that supports this type of collaborative co-experience.”

Limit your snaps?

Similarly, though we are curating our memories by editing photos, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

“Most false memory experts would say that inaccuracy is a good thing for many reasons,” says Wade. “If you change your political views at some point for example, you might go back and think that your political views were more in line with what they are now. We want to think we are stable people. We remember our relationships in a better light, we were remember ourselves in a way that is more in line with who we want to be. Some distortion is good for our well-being.”

So how often should we take photos? Unless you’re a professional, Henkel suggests limiting the amount of photos you allow yourself to take and to be more selective in order to get more of the benefits with fewer of the potential costs.

“If you’re on vacation and enjoying some beautiful site, take a couple pictures and put the camera away and enjoy the site, she says. “Later, go through them, organise them, print them out, and take the time to reminisce with other people. Those are all things that help keep memories alive.”

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